Legislator pay is a topic of conversation that seems to happen at four predicable times: during elections, in times of budget crisis, in times of ethical questions about a specific member, and whenever lawmakers decide to increase or decrease it.
Too frequently the topic is one-sided based on the optics of lawmakers raising their salaries. I contend that dealing with member salaries as a taboo is a short-sighted way to approach an issue with complex ramifications. The effects of lawmakers salaries include more than just their share of overall budget costs, but also by limiting who can afford to run or hold office and the ethical dilemmas of outside employment and possible conflicts it may cause.
The National Conference of State Legislators says, “No matter how salaries are determined, it’s still difficult to have an open discussion about them, given the public’s hostility toward the issue. Legislators are all too aware of the potential political consequences of supporting an increase, even if they believe it’s the right thing to do.”
Alabama lawmakers just finished their first session under a new pay scale, which sets legislators’ pay at the same rate of the median household income, currently $42,849. This rate is set as a result of a ballot initiative lawmakers passed in 2012. Before that, lawmaker pay was complicated at best and based on an old provision in the state constitution.
A fact-sheet provided by Alabama Policy Institute prior to the vote on the amendment estimated that the state could save up to $1 million dollars annually under the new provisions for their salary and expenses.
In a report by the Associated Press looking at the actual cost savings the state said it’s too soon to tell, but Rep. Mike Ball said, “I know that several of my colleagues have been complaining to me about their pay cut. That’s probably a sign.”
According to a report by NCSL detailing lawmaker pay in each state the state with the highest salary is California with a whopping $97,197 base pay.
When looking at the NCSL list of legislative pay by state, one could be struck by the wide range of salaries and the many states that pay lawmakers very low rates. The question is: How much is enough for what lawmakers do? That’s hard to answer because frequently the work they do beyond the Legislative Session is not broadcast on the evening news and even then it is only dozens and not hundreds of bills reported on in any given legislative session.
Another important issue related to members’ salaries is the ethical implications and challenges that can arise related to their solicitations for outside work. It’s hard to talk about legislators’ income and outside work these days without House Speaker Mike Hubbard coming to mind. No matter how the legal process shakes out for him the emails presented in his case related to seeking clients and outside work were unflattering. In one he is quoted as saying, “I need to be a salesman for BR&A,” which wouldn’t be so bad but he followed it up with “Except for those ethics laws. Who proposed those things?! What were we thinking?”
However tongue and cheek he intended that to be (and clearly he didn’t intend it for public consumption) it sums up a common problem now that most states have tough standards on what lawmakers can and cannot do for work, and how their work could be affected by their official duties.
There have been many situations nationally where lawmakers from local, state and federal levels have faced questions and criminal charges related to their outside employment.
New York lawmakers this year moved to ban outside income as a matter of ethics. NYS Public Radio/WXXI reported, “Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein says he’s decided to give up his private law practice. Klein said, “While I enjoy and love the practice of law, I think now we’re in an ethical crisis” and that he wanted to “lead by example.”
The topic is one that raises many questions. Our founding fathers’ intent was to have citizen lawmakers as representative of the people, and that it not be a full time job. Now, though,with near perpetual campaigning and all the attendant responsibilities it’s tough to hold down a traditional job that doesn’t conflict with holding office and be successful at both.
Voters should look beyond the instant gratification of a quick fix and easy talking point to recognize that the less we pay lawmakers, the harder it is to find the leaders we need. Lawmakers work year-round, not just when they’re in Legislative Session. If only the rich can afford to hold office only the rich will serve, and the cries that they are out of touch will only grow louder.